David Oyelowo Breaks Down Why Javert Isn't 'Les Misérables' True Villain

Christopher Wallenberg
Q&A Maarten de Boer

How does an obsession turn into a lifelong quest? In Masterpiece's sprawling adaptation of the 19th century novel Les Misérables, that's an ever-present question as inspector Javert (Selma's David Oyelowo) spends years relentlessly pursuing self-sacrificing do-gooder Jean Valjean (The Affair's Dominic West), an ex-con whose petty crimes began with stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.

While you won't hear any revolutionaries belting power ballads in this nonmusical rendition, Oyelowo hopes fans of the Broadway show still tune in. Here's more from the actor.

Why is Javert so intent on catching Jean Valjean?

David Oyelowo: Jean Valjean is someone who engages in a true arc of transformation. Javert cannot live with that. His moral compass says that you are one thing or the other. So that's why these two characters are at such odds. In many ways, Jean Valjean and Javert represent the sides we as people have within ourselves.

Laurence Cendrowicz/PBS

Many people view Javert as the story's villain, but it sounds as though you feel differently.

Javert was born in prison to criminal parents, so he's disgusted by his own upbringing and he projects all of that loathing onto Jean Valjean. Someone like Javert needs to think in black-and-white terms, because it's a time of such upheaval. If he operates in a gray area, who do you arrest? Who do you hold accountable for causing unrest?

Does a story of society's poor and downtrodden feel particularly resonant right now?

It does — in ways that, to be honest, sadden me. When we look at the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, both in America and around the world, it's undeniable. As much as I love BBC-[style] period dramas, sometimes they can be quite quaint and polite. So we wanted it to have an edge and a lot of grit and reality. There's nothing chocolate box about it.

Masterpiece: Les Misérables, Series Premiere, Sunday, April 14, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at PBS.org)